Dr. Ron Graybill has served his communities in a variety of ways over the years: professor, journalist, communications specialist, editor, and pastor. A native of Northern California, Graybill spent third grade at Pacific Union College Elementary School while his mother trained at PUC to be a teacher. He now has an M.Div. degree from Andrews University, and a Ph.D. in American religious history from Johns Hopkins University.
Graybill spent 13 years as an associate secretary at the Ellen G. White Estate at General Conference Headquarters, where he assisted Arthur White in writing the six-volume biography of Ellen G.White. His many articles on Adventist history made him one of the most frequently cited sources in the new Ellen G. White Encyclopedia.
On Saturday, March 9, Graybill will present this perspective during the 2019 Civil Rights Lecture at PUC, titled, “James Edson White: Flawed Hero.” This lecture is free and open to the public and will begin at 4 p.m. in Paulin Hall.
Tell us about your lecture. What will you be talking about?
It is the story of the life of James Edson White, with emphasis on his pioneer evangelistic, educational, and humanitarian work among Mississippi Blacks between 1895 and 1900, but with little-known aspects of his troubled childhood, youth, and young manhood. My presentation will also describe the sort of paternalistic racism which characterized most social action by whites during that era.
Much of what you will be saying in your lecture is an elaboration of your 1971 book, Mission to Black America, which was just released this month in a second edition. Tell us a little about that book.
In Mission to Black America, I tell the harrowing, yet inspiring story of James Edson White’s heroic and misunderstood efforts to spread the advent message among the Black people of Mississippi in the late 19th century. The Black people were willing to listen, but not everyone wanted them to hear. To write the book I visited several sites in Mississippi, interviewed persons who lived through the events described and made use of unpublished and confidential correspondence between Edson White and his mother, Ellen G. White. During my research, I even uncovered previously unstudied court records on the Olvin murder case. I think its application to current issues make it still a very relevant tale today.
Can you elaborate on that last part? What, in particular, makes this story relevant today?
We are in an era when the long-standing racism of much of American society has come more obviously into view. Understanding how even the most progressive individuals in the past still had racial flaws helps us become more aware of our own unconscious assumptions and feelings about race, and thus better able to admit and overcome them.
I understand you’ll be guest lecturing in a number of classes while you’re here. What will you be talking about?
I will be lecturing in religion, history, and English classes on Ellen White’s unreleased handwritten documents. While it is said all her letters and manuscripts are released online, it is only the polished, edited versions of those documents that have been released. I will show how a careful study of the holographs (documents in the author’s own handwriting) brings new evidence to light; evidence that has been lost in the process of correcting, editing, and polishing her documents for publication. I will also expose students to the discipline of documentary editing, showing how original handwritten documents are now commonly prepared for scholarly publication so as not to lose any of the information found in the handwritten drafts. In this study, I will make use of the previously unknown Ellen White letter that was just discovered in the PUC Library’s archival collection.
How did your intense interest in the White family begin?
As we discussed racial issues and pushed racial reforms in the 1960s, I became aware of how Mrs. White’s apparent support of segregation loomed behind the scenes. Then I discovered the historical background that rendered her statements more understandable and defensible, as well as her clear but long-forgotten condemnation of racial discrimination. My research in these topics and my book about Edson White won me the appointment to the White Estate to assist Arthur White in writing the six-volume biography of his grandmother, Ellen White.
What sparked your passion for positive race relations in particular?
My high school girlfriend was part Mexican, part Apache, and part French. I had an aunt who thought it was terrible I should date “such a person.” Her views on race fueled my passion for better race relations.
What do you hope students who attend this lecture will take away from it?
My hope is this lecture will inspire a chastened pride in some aspects of the American and Adventist past. What I mean by that is it is possible to be proud of our heritage without denying or forgetting the mistakes our ancestors made. We can acknowledge we represent the results of those mistakes, but in recognizing these things we can also move forward positively in our church, in our communities, and in our country.